What is manufacturing?

How do things actually get made?
13 November 2018

Interview with 

Professor Sir Mike Gregory, Cambridge University


How do engineers, scientists and technologists actually make the products we see around us everyday? Georgia Mills spoke to Mike Gregory, former head of the Institute for Manufacturing at Cambridge University...

Mike - Well, we really mean a cycle of activities from understanding people's needs or wants. Working out design that will do that job, then working out how to make things, and deliver them, and service them, and to do all of that without using too much material or too much energy or without making a mess. Of course in the middle of that cycle is the really interesting bit of making and shaping materials. How exciting can it be to dig up some material, some earth out of the ground, fairly special earth, and turning it into an aeroplane so that making bit, is really exciting but it's worth remembering that manufacturing is not just about planes and cars, it's about food, and medicine, and buildings.

Georgia - And I know we have some food in the studio, and I’m going to ask you about that in a second. But what are some of the common manufacturing methods that we use?

Mike - Well there's a raft of them. Many of them, you’ll be familiar with. We can cast things into moulds, I wasn't thinking of cake necessarily, but cast iron or we can squirt things into moulds like plastics, we can extrude long strips of things through dies to make aluminium parts. We can bash things into shape by forging, or we can machine them by cutting, either with machine tools, or perhaps with lasers these days. And increasingly we can make things additively by adding on small amounts of material to make extremely complex shapes.

Georgia -  Right so, building things up, cutting things down, or just sort of bashing things together. Do we have much manufacturing going on in this country at the moment.

Mike - Well we do quite a lot. There’s a bit of a myth that we don’t have any. Hence the reason for your question I suspect, but in fact, we're still the sixth largest manufacturer in the world. We have the second largest aerospace industry. Rolls-Royce Aero engines are on 30 percent of the world's new aircraft. We make all the wings in this country, for Airbus planes, all the major carmakers have plants here, and we have global food industries, medicine industries, and these days a lot of attention being paid to making buildings in factories, and assembling them together on site rather than putting one bit of clay on top of another as we do traditionally.

Georgia - I’m imagining a kind of flat pack house now. That's exciting. So what about robots? How have robotics changed our manufacturing efforts?

Mike - Well as you appreciate, they don't look much like Star Wars robots. Really, they're there to move things around and that's really useful. Jobs which can be very repetitive, which make us tired or sometimes pretty bored, can often be replaced by robots if they're reasonably standardised. And so a robot is a kind of automation. It doesn't have hidden arms but it does have very accurate positioning capability and can work fast without getting tired or getting worn out.

Georgia - Right, and Sam, who put the program together was telling me that even the most ordinary things have a good deal of robotics involved in them. I have here with me some Scotch Pancakes, I’m going to open them here and eat them while I’m asking you about them. Well I would if I could actually, it’s quite tough!

Chris - Would you like me to help.

Georgia - Would you open them for me please?

Chris - I'm offering cause I'm hungry actually, right here we go. Shall I resort to a key?

Georgia - Let’s ask about the manufacturing of that packaging!

Chris - Unopenable packet! I’m in, there you go!

Georgia - Brilliant. Here we go. So these pancakes have these little rings on them and Sam is telling me that even pancakes have robots involved in making them.

Mike - Well it's a great example of robotic assembly. You tend to think of robots making mechanical parts. But really important for food, because it's exactly that kind of process that’s very repetitive. You have to do it very fast and very reliably. And so that ring you see on the pancake is where the suction cup went on to pick the pancake up and put it on the assembly line.

Chris - It's the sort of ring you get, if you imagine putting your cup down and you get a tea ring if you spill your cup on your desk there's a ring that sort of size and shape on the surface of these little pancakes. And that's where the suction went.

Mike - Exactly.

Georgia - The plunger just went along, picking up all the pancakes. Would you like one Mike?

Mike - Would you have any butter to put on it? 

Georgia - No I don’t I’m afraid. Just plain. And why are we still innovating in manufacturing? Don’t we already know how to make things? Why is this important to invest in?

Mike - Well, although a lot of processes have been around for a long time, there’s a lot we can do to make them better. So whether it’s casting or forging, we can make them faster. We can make them cheaper. We can make them more accurate, and that’s always worth doing, but of course, there are new processes emerging, like additive processing that we mentioned before and that will enable us to do things that weren't possible before and to do them in economical and practical ways.


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